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Thinking Out Loud
  • Devotion

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 29, 2015

    Amos Disasa

    Editor’s Note: Today’s blog is guest-written by the Rev. Amos Disasa, organizing pastor of Downtown Church in Columbia, South Carolina, and a Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary trustee. Amos is also a contributing writer for The Presbyterian Outlook and serves on the board of directors for Transitions, the Columbia Development CorporationThe River Alliance and The Nickelodeon Theatre.

    I want to share with you a moment when I heard God speak. Last fall, I went to one of my homes. Home is hard to define for me. I was born in Ethiopia, came to the United States when I was three, lived in Columbia, South Carolina, for most of my childhood, and graduated from high school in Laurens, South Carolina. Since then, I've lived in Brazil, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and back in Columbia. I've been around the world, and learned and forgotten three languages. When people ask where I'm from, I have lots of options. For me, home is not a place with a name. I'm learning to love that part of my story.

    When I was very young, I thought home always would be Ethiopia. So last fall I went to the only home I never worried about leaving. The trip fell on the 30th anniversary of our departure from the country, just as the Marxists were beginning to make life miserable and set our country back even further. The trip wasn't what I expected. I anticipated an emotional reunion with a part of myself that I thought I left behind, a part that would complete me. I didn't find it, but I heard God speak in subtle ways. One thing I heard God say was that gifts aren't rewards.

    Near the end of our trip, I visited my childhood home in a quiet neighborhood of Addis Ababa. The street wasn't paved, but for Ethiopia, it was as close as you can get to Pleasantville.

    Two of my three brothers were with me. One of them moved back to Ethiopia a few years ago to work for a coffee exporter. It was Raaji who led us to our house after a brief taxi ride through narrow unmarked streets. We still own the home. When we left, my father asked his elementary school teacher, Astamari Endashaw, to live there rent-free until we returned.

    Astamari wasn't an ordinary tenant. He told my father when he was in third grade that he was smart enough to be more than a shepherd. He challenged him to leave home for more education in a neighboring village with a school staffed by Presbyterian missionaries. So we were going to see our family home, but we were also going to pay our respects to the man who made our own education possible. If not for Astamari Endashaw, I wouldn't have written this devotion.

    The visit was good for us, but couldn't end quickly enough for Astamari and his wife. You see, we did not call ahead to tell them we were coming. We didn't give our hosts time to bake bread, roast coffee or prepare a meal. They were embarrassed and ashamed in a way that's particularly Ethiopian. Greeting guests with homemade food and fresh coffee is a ritual that is nearly religious. Honor is bestowed on guests with an open table. It's not unusual for Ethiopians to keep entire meals in their freezers should someone stop by. Our hosts were empty-handed this day. They wanted to honor us with hospitality, but we didn't let them. We insisted that it was all right, no big deal. It was too late. They were ashamed.

    As we gathered our things to leave, I saw something strange. Raaji discreetly slipped a handful of bills in Astamari's hand. Astamari didn't protest. He took the money and put it in his pocket.

    On the ride home, I asked Raaji why he was so generous. I never heard them ask for money. They lived in our house free. I also asked why Astamari was comfortable taking the money. My brother said, "It's just what you do here. If you have extra, you give it to others who don't."

    My brother’s gift was generous, but that's not the only place where I heard God speak. Astamari received the gift freely, even while expressing shame at being a terrible host. He accepted the gift, just as it was. God spoke to me that day. God said don't dishonor gifts by reducing them to rewards. Gifts aren't earned because you did your part.

    The grace of God is like that. God speaks grace to us all the time, but often we're more generous with others than we are with ourselves. In her poem “The Seven of Pentacles,” Marge Peircy offers this suggestion, "Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen…".

    So, my prayer for us is that the divine giver will speak up so that we can hear and that our ears, hands and hearts will be open to the word without hesitation.

    I may never have an easy response when people ask me where I'm from, but I know where I feel at home - wherever God has something to say.

  • No More

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 22, 2015

    No MoreThus read the sign carried by a grieving member of Charleston's Black community: "No more." A plea. A lament. A cry of sorrow. An expression of anger.

    The BBC coverage of the murder of nine men and women at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, communicated the grief and fear of many in America. We watched the screen in silence, sitting in our room at a bed and breakfast in Scotland, shaking our heads, wondering why this sort of violence continues to happen in our country. The British news presenter spoke of the inability of Americans to deal with racism and our unwillingness to pass meaningful laws to deal with gun violence.

    Hearing these reports while in Britain only increases the power of President Obama's statement that other civilized nations do not repeatedly suffer these atrocities. He is quite simply right, whether we want to hear it or not.

    My own dismay and sadness turned to anger when I heard a representative of the gun lobby say that the problem is that the members of that Bible study weren't exercising their "God-given right to carry guns." I think it is time we put this outrageous and cynical claim in its place. People have a right to attend a Bible study or worship service, go to a movie, shop in a mall, or send their children to school without worrying whether an insane, criminal or hate-filled person will gun them down. We have a right in our country not to bear arms.

    I remember a conversation my dad and I had when I was a small child. We were watching the old Western television show, Bonanza, and I asked my dad why all the men in the old west wore guns. He said it was because the west in those days was a violent and dangerous place. "Why don't we carry guns now?" I asked. "Because," he answered, "we are now a civilized country governed by laws."

    The president says that at some point Americans will have to face the fact that we are the only advanced country in the world where this sort of violence occurs repeatedly. I hope so.

    The seemingly bottomless pockets of the gun lobbies have succeeded in manipulating, cajoling and threatening politicians into supporting their right to peddle their deadly wares without any meaningful limits. They have succeeded in linking their financial gain to a strain of American patriotism that is only too willing to be used. I say this as a person who was given my first shotgun when I was twelve and who has enjoyed shooting for sport my entire life. But it is time for responsible sportsmen, gun enthusiasts and proud patriots of every stripe to make it clear that no right is absolute. And those who peddle weapons without regard for the uses and abuses to which those weapons are put are merely merchants of death.

    There is another aspect to the murder of the members of "Mother Emanuel" that we must address, the race of the men and women who were killed. Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr., Clementa Pinckney, and DePayne Middleton-Doctor were all African Americans. They were all targeted, and they were all slain because they were Black. The Daily Telegraph quoted their murderer as saying, "I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country and you have to go." To call their murderer a white supremacist lets us all off too easily. Their murderer has been fed on the lies and bigotry that surface repeatedly in our culture in a variety of ways, in innuendo and racist jokes, in the smears and garden-variety disrespect that many Black citizens suffer through every day. He acted alone, but he is not alone in his racist sentiments.

    What was different about the man who reloaded five times as he shot the members of this Bible study group who had extended Christian hospitality to him was the lethality of his hatred because of his ready access to firearms. This was a hate crime, but even more, this was an act of terror which stands in a long tradition of racial terrorism in our country, from lynchings to the institutionalized slavery of the American penal system.

    It is time for racism to be raked from our hearts. It is time for us to stand up against those who cynically exploit the fears of many to sell more weapons. No, that's not quite true; it is not time. It is past time. And for us as Christians, there never was a time when such attitudes and actions were appropriate.

    The grace of God has compelled members of the Mother Emanuel Church to forgive the man who committed this act of terror against their community. The justice of God demands that we take the steps necessary to make our nation safe enough for people to go to church, for our children to go to school, and for teenagers to take in a movie free of fear.

  • A Message of Gratitude

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 15, 2015

    The Daily Examen (also called "the daily examination of conscience") is a practice of prayer that is closely associated with St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order and author of The Spiritual Exercises.

    There are five steps in the Daily Examen:

    1. Gratitude. Give thanks to God for all the gifts that God has given us.
    2. Grace. Ask for God's grace to know our sins and to accept God's forgiveness.
    3. Examination. Review our day, from the moment we rise till we go to bed, reflecting on thoughts, words and deeds, in order that the entire day can be brought to the light of God's grace and mercy.
    4. Forgiveness. Submitting our day to God, we ask God to forgive us of our faults, remembering that the purpose for facing our sin is so that we can know and live in God's love more profoundly.
    5. Resolve. We resolve to amend what we have done wrong through the grace of God. We close by praying the Lord's Prayer.

    Multitudes of Christians have found the Daily Examen to be beneficial in allowing them to bathe daily in the love and grace and forgiveness of God and to live in the power of the Holy Spirit.

    Today, I am mindful of the first point in the Examen: Gratitude. And I am mindful especially of my gratitude to God for all of the many friends and supporters of Louisville Seminary who have made it possible this year for us to engage in a mission that we believe is indispensable to the life and health of the church.

    Thank you for making it possible every day for our professors to teach and form the next generation of leaders for the church. Our students learn to bridge differences in our church and society in the name of Christ. They learn to lead congregations with theological and biblical integrity. They learn "to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God." (Micah 6:8)

    Thank you for making it possible for our professors to do important research that will enrich the church and contribute to the church's life and work. This year you helped make it possible for Amy Plantinga Pauw to write a new theological commentary on the biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, for Shannon Craigo-Snell to bring together resources from the worlds of theater and theology to better inform the worship of the church. You have supported research into the spiritual and emotional lives of children conducted by Brad Wigger, into the New Testament book of Galatians by Marty Soards, and into the intersections of pastoral counseling and interfaith education by Carol Cook. And this only scratches the surface of the contributions our faculty have made this year because of you.

    Thank you for making it possible for our students and for leaders in our community to benefit from lectures and classes and workshops that challenge us, nourish us, and send us forth into the world renewed in the name of Jesus Christ. You have contributed to some of the most important efforts for justice, interfaith understanding, anti-racism and theological advancement imaginable.

    Someone recently asked me what the best part of my job is as president of Louisville Seminary. The best part of my job is meeting and knowing you, the generous people who selflessly give of your time, talents and resources to ensure that our future ministers and other church leaders will be well-educated and well-prepared to lead.

    The need for your generosity has never been greater, and our gratitude is commensurate with the need. The amount of support seminaries receive today from denominations is very small. In the case of Louisville Seminary, we receive less than 1% of our budget from our denomination.

    If it were not for your generosity, theological education would already have become a thing of the past. But you have come through, again and again. Because of your generosity we just sent another class of ministers to serve congregations; therapists to counsel families and individuals; and chaplains to serve in hospitals, social service agencies and in the military.

    You have made all of this happen. Next fall, because of your continued generosity, Louisville Seminary will be able to provide theological education and preparation for ministry to every master’s degree student tuition-free. Thank you.

    We still have "miles to go before we sleep," as the poet Robert Frost said. There is a lot more money left to raise in order to endow the tuition scholarship program. We face many of the challenges that other seminaries face. But because of you, we are in a wonderful position to meet the challenges of today's world. So, once again, thank you for the time, talent and resources you have shared with Louisville Seminary this year so that we might continue to remain true to our calling, "to educate men and women to participate in the redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ in the world."

    If I might paraphrase the apostle Paul just a little, "for all of these reasons I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers." (Ephesians 1:16)

    Thank you and God bless you.


  • A Remarkable Woman

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 09, 2015

    Hildegard of Bingen
    “The Holy Spirit: living and life-giving,
    the life that’s all things moving,
    the root in all created being:
    of filth and muck it washes all things clean—
    out-scrubbing guilty staining, its balm our wounds constraining—
    and so its life with praise is shining,
    rousing and reviving

    (From "Spiritus sanctus vivificans vita")

    “O sweet, elected one
    who burnt in the glow of the fiery one, a root,
    and who in the father’s splendour elucidated
    mysteries, …”

    (From "O dulcis electe")

    abounds in all,
    from the depths exalted and excelling
    over every star,
    and most beloved
    of all,
    for to the highest King the kiss of peace
    she gave.”

    (From "Karitas habundat")

    One of the choicest of fictions entertained in the vanity of some modern sorts is that we have advanced beyond our forebears in our understandings. True, we do possess more technological wonders today, a better grasp of science, and are the beneficiaries of medical advances. But in many regards, especially when it comes to the quest for wisdom, claims to superiority of insight merely because we live in the twenty-first century, while others dwelt in earlier centuries, are baseless.

    In last week’s blog, I asked that we pause with Anselm of Canterbury in the midst of the bustle and demands of existence to reflect on what gives us life. This week, I invite us to listen to one of those voices from history I truly wish I could hear rather than just read, the voice of Hildegard of Bingen, a remarkable woman whose insights often took flight in song such as the selections sampled above.

    Hildegard, first the abbess of the small convent of Disibodenberg, and later of a community she established at Rupertsberg near Bingen, was born in 1098. She died in 1179. Thus, she lived during one of the most intellectually rich ages in human history, what has been called by some the "Twelfth Century Renaissance," a time when universities came into existence, when classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and poets like Ovid and Virgil were "rediscovered," and scientific and medical knowledge from the Arab world was making its way into Europe along trade routes.

    We sometimes mistakenly bracket this period negatively, sneering at words like "medieval." But this was an age that saw a rebirth of humanistic and divine philosophy. It was an age when reform swept through monastic foundations across Europe, attracting some of the greatest minds in history to the contemplative life, when Bernard of Clairvaux led the Cistercian revolution emphasizing simplicity of life and worship, purity in prayer, generosity to the poor, hospitality to strangers and honest physical labor. It was also an age when a brilliant woman emerged as a leader, a theologian, a mystic and the author of sublime and original sacred music.

    Hildegard bursts upon the scene already a mature theological thinker, writing humbly, but with an assured hand, to Bernard of Clairvaux in 1146 from her convent in the Rhineland. She asked his advice. She confessed that she had been writing hymns and music, that she has come to theological insights and original biblical interpretations. She entreated Bernard, one of the foremost leaders of the church in her day, to instruct her as to whether she should remain silent or continue to write and teach. Bernard encouraged her to continue. And continue she did.

    The originality of her thought shines through her prose as well as verse:

    "God is eternal, and eternity is fire, and this is where God is. And God is not hidden fire or silent fire, but fire in action. ..." (149)*

    "And when [God] created the light, which was winged and could fly everywhere, he determined in the same ancient counsel that he would give a corporeal mass to the spiritual life, which is the breath of life, and give it a shape formed from the clay of the earth, which does not have the ability to fly or breathe or raise itself above itself; therefore it would be all the more bound down and it would gaze all the more attentively toward God. And so the ancient serpent had such hatred for that bond, because this very human creature which had become so weighed down by its corporeality was destined nevertheless, by means of its rationality, to raise itself to the godhead." (95)*

    Hildegard's letters are especially beautiful, combining humility and confidence, whether speaking to a highly regarded theologian or a humble person asking for advice. I particularly love the closing of a letter she wrote to another mystic, Elizabeth of Schonau:

    "Daughter, may God make you a mirror to life. But as for me, I remain in the meagerness of my own mind. I am tired, anxious and fearful, at times sounding forth as the small sound of the trumpet from the Living Light. May God help me that I remain in his service." (81)*

    Mark Atherton, her translator and a fellow at Oxford University, has written of her:

    "Within a few years, Hildegard of Bingen had become a religious, moral and political adviser to half of Europe, as her voluminous correspondence shows. Credited with prophetic insights, the 'Sibyl of the Rhineland' was frequently consulted, and on the basis of her authority as a prophet, undertook what for a woman was almost unheard of: four preaching tours through the heartland of the German Empire." (x-xi)* {Her first teaching tour, incidentally began when she was sixty years old; her last tour ended when she was seventy-three!}

    Of all the incidents in her remarkable life, the one which stands out most to me is one of the most tragic, an event that, at one point, threatened her entire legacy. A young man of noble family who had once been excommunicated died sometime after having been re-admitted to the church. Hildegard allowed him to be buried in the convent cemetery. The ecclesial authorities in Mainz, however, claiming that the young man had not been properly received back into the church, declared that he remained excommunicant at the time of his death. They demanded that his body be exhumed and removed from the convent's cemetery.

    Hildegard said no. Consequently the authorities barred her and her nuns from holy communion and forbade them from singing the liturgy.

    As Mark Atherton tells the story, "Hildegard herself, who set so much store by music as 'the sacred sound through which all creation resounds', was beside herself." (xv)* Until the controversy was resolved (and, thankfully, it was resolved before the end of her life) she found herself "oppressed by a great sadness."

    My dog-eared Penguin edition of Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings tempts me now to share a dozen more passages from her theological works, though the limitations of this space prevents me from doing so. The richness of her mind and the originality of her insights remind us, if we need reminding, that when we turn to so many of the writings of men and women of faith in ages past we are doing far more than just reading lines from old books. We are entering into conversations, we are listening at the feet of trusted sages, we are allowing ourselves to be gathered up into a cloud of witnesses. And we become witnesses ourselves to the God who has been sharing wisdom with humanity for a very long time. This is a terrific antidote to the arrogance of modernity.

    *All references are to: Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings, translated with an introduction by Mark Atherton (London: Penguin, 2001).

  • A Quiet from which to Live

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 01, 2015

    QuietRequired reading lists have proven the death of many a classic.

    I've lost count of people who have told me that they don't like Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, or Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, or the short stories of Flannery O'Connor because they were "forced" to read these classics in high school or college.

    The same might be said for reading lists in seminary. Maybe especially in seminary, because the reason we require a particular classic can unintentionally distort the reader's sense of the book.

    I'm not really sure if there's a solution. If you can think of one, please let me know.

    When I was in seminary we were required to read Anselm of Canterbury's Proslogion. It was on the required reading list primarily so we could understand Anselm’s so-called "ontological proof for God's existence."

    In time I came to realize that Anselm's "proof" was neither really a "proof" nor even an "argument" for God's existence. Rather, it is a profound theological and spiritual reflection on the God in whom Anselm placed his trust.

    Anselm's words in the Proslogion represent the exuberant cry of a grateful heart. As Anselm himself writes:

    "Have you found what you sought, my soul? You sought God, and you found God to be the highest of all things, than which nothing better could be conceived; you found God to be Life itself and Light, Wisdom and Good, eternal Blessedness and blessed Eternity; you found God to be everywhere and always."

    The fact that we were required to read Anselm's Proslogion in a philosophy of religion class caused us to bracket it as "philosophy of religion" and to file it away in a particular cabinet - the cabinet of "proofs for God's existence." And there it stayed, unread and largely unappreciated.

    Unappreciated, for me at least, until recently I was re-reading passages from Anselm's Proslogion selected by the editors of a Benedictine Breviary in honor of the Feast of St. Anselm on April 21.*

    Reading the second selection prescribed for this feast day, I was struck by a fact that should have occurred to me long, long ago: Anselm was not only a doctor of the church, he was a busy bishop. Indeed, he was the Archbishop of Canterbury, the ranking official in the Roman Catholic Church in England during one of the church's most turbulent periods (Anselm lived from c.1033-1109). He clashed with kings and was exiled twice. His theology was forged in the crucible of conflict.

    All theology is contextual. There's no such thing as faith in abstraction. So, when Anselm reflects theologically on God, "which nothing better could be conceived," he speaks not as the idle resident of an ivory tower driven by mere speculation, but as an active person who has found refuge, comfort and strength in God amid the dangers, toils and snares of existence.

    Anselm says to himself in one especially moving passage:

    "Come now, you poor creature, turn your back on your busy-ness for a little while. For a few moments leave the tumult of your thoughts; throw off the burden of your cares and put aside your wearisome occupations. Make some time for God; rest in God for a while. Enter into the chamber of your mind; exclude everything but God, and what will help you find God; shut the door and search for God. Now say how you long to see God's face. Say to God: 'Lord, it is your face that I seek.' Say it with your whole heart. Come then, Lord my God, come and instruct my heart where and how to search for you, where and how to find you."*

    In prayer and meditation, Anselm did not seek quietism - an abandonment of the world to its own devices, unconcerned for matters of justice and right. Instead, Anselm sought a holy quiet in the midst of life's strivings and strife. He understood what we sometimes do not, that one acts in vain whose actions do not rest in the God who is able to do abundantly more than we can achieve or conceive.

    I wonder what else awaits in those lists of required texts I've filed away.

    *Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary, compiled and edited by Maxwell E. Johnson, Oblate of Saint John's Abbey and the Monks of Saint John's Abbey (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2005), pp. 1856-1859.

  • A Leadership Notebook: Adapting the Leader’s Behavior “Situationally”

    by Michael Jinkins | May 29, 2015

    Editor's note: This is the final installment of the Thinking Out Loud "Leadership Notebook" series. We hope you have enjoyed these insights into best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership. Leadership-themed blog posts are available on Louisville Seminary's website. The regular Thinking Out Loud blog will continue to post every Tuesday. Watch for more information about our next Thinking Out Loud special feature for the 2015-2016 academic year.

    Situational LeadershipA pastor I know well recently contacted me to ask if we might reflect together on a problem he is facing in his church. His problem poses a classic leadership conundrum. He received feedback from some trustworthy and frustrated members of his congregation that he “needs to hold his lay leaders more accountable to do the things they are responsible for doing.” The balls they were juggling were getting dropped. Routine and sometimes important tasks were not consistently carried out by the people responsible to do so.

    We explored whether or not this feedback was credible. The pastor confirmed that he thought it was and that he needed to figure out how to do a better job of “holding lay leaders more accountable.” We explored some specific cases, and he related a couple of stories, one of which is particularly illustrative of the problem.

    “Emily” is exactly the sort of wise and caring person you want around the table when elders, deacons or trustees make tough decisions. She brings a wealth of experience to deliberations. She has vision, a great heart and deep faith. When discussions get tough, Emily gets calm and helps find a way through the crisis. But there’s a problem. Emily is an abysmal committee chair. She can’t keep a calendar, organize a meeting, make assignments to accomplish tasks, follow up on the tasks assigned, or any of the other basic competencies of committee leadership.

    “What should I do?” asked the pastor.

    It so happened that this pastor and I had discussed a resource some time back that offers real insight into just such a situation. The resource is called The Situational Leader. It was written several years ago by Dr. Paul Hersey who served as a university president, was the founder and chairman of the board of the Center for Leadership Studies, and was an active church member. He applied the insights of behavioral modification to management for years helping nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies alike perform better. The Situational Leader was originally published in 1984 and has been through several reprints and editions.

    First, let me present the key Situational Leader insight, then I’ll review Hersey’s basic model, and finally, we’ll apply it very briefly to the case at hand.

    The key insight of Hersey’s situational leadership is this: Any leader who always sticks with his or her most comfortable “style” of leadership (whether that leader is a take-charge, highly-directive leader, a facilitative leader, or one who operates more “hands’ off”) is dooming himself or herself to failure about three-quarters of the time. This is because the needs and readiness of followers to do what is required of them in their own leadership roles is quite diverse. An effective leader, according to Hersey, must diagnose the particular needs and readiness of individual followers and adapt his or her leadership style to fit those needs and the followers’ state of readiness.1

    The model can be diagrammed more easily than explained in a paragraph, but I will leave it to you to read Hersey for yourself so you can see his excellent and easy-to-follow diagrams. (His book is short and will repay with huge dividends the time spent studying it!)

    Hersey divides the readiness of followers to do what they need to do into four quadrants; then he lays out leader behaviors that correspond to these four quadrants. In quadrant 1, followers lack both motivation and competence to perform the tasks needed by the organization. In quadrant 2, followers are relatively willing, but they feel unable to do what is needed. In quadrant 3, they are able, but unwilling; and in quadrant 4, they are everybody’s dream - “able, willing and confident.” Unfortunately, most church polities seem to assume that when we are baptized God mysteriously moves us all to quadrant 4. This is not the case.

    A good leader does not simply say “I’m a strong directive leader” and approach every leadership situation the same way. If he or she does this, then s/he will miss the needs and readiness of many people who otherwise might be brought along. Conversely a good leader does not simply say “I’m really just a facilitator of the group. We reflect together on what needs to be done. We collaborate on the goals and objectives of the group. But I leave it entirely in the hands of the other folks to make it happen.” Again, if the leader does this, s/he is going to miss the actual needs and level of readiness of many of the people with whom s/he works.

    Instead, a good leader reflects carefully on the behaviors of the followers, analyzes how well they follow through on assigned or assumed tasks, and crafts his or her own leadership to fit the needs and level of readiness of the followers. For example, someone who just isn’t getting the job done may feel unable and be unwilling to do the job, feeling insecure about taking the risk even to try. They are likely to need “specific instruction” and be “closely supervised.” A person who feels unable but willing to do the task may need the leader to explain more fully why the task matters and what difference it will make to the organization if done well. Clarification is often needed, and this may require a higher level of collaboration. However, someone who is able, willing and thoroughly confident to do the job mostly just needs the leader to get out of the way. Almost anything the leader does will only mess things up.

    As the pastor who called me described Emily’s behavior, it became clear to him that she may feel unable to do the tasks assigned, but is really willing. He was able to develop a leadership intervention strategy: He will go over with her the importance of the tasks of committee leadership, clarifying whatever needs to be clarified, inviting her to ask her questions, and making sure she understands. He will also clarify with her whether she really wants to take care of the basic tasks essential to committee leadership. Then either he will offer her opportunities to get additional training in committee leadership or help her recruit someone to complement her gifts (perhaps an able deputy who could ensure that the details of committee chairing are carried out consistently).

    Hersey’s insight is pure gold. And it helps all of us to keep from absolutizing our own preferences and most comfortable styles of leadership. The organizations we lead need more options than just our favorite approaches to leadership. They need our ability to be flexible and responsive to the needs and readiness of the people with whom we serve.

    1<.sup>Two small notes: 1. Hersey’s use of the term “follower” is essentially positional because each of these “followers” in relationship to the organization’s “leader” is also a leader too, working with others. While the vocabulary is somewhat limiting, the insight is expansive. 2. Obviously this insight does not imply that a leader of an organization with 150 employees or a church with 450 members needs to assess the needs and readiness of every single person. Rather, it means that the leader needs to understand well the leaders that report to him/her, other key leadership, and those who serve on the institution’s board.

  • On Loving the Church

    by Michael Jinkins | May 26, 2015

    The President's Charge to the 2015 Graduating Class of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
    May 17, 2015

    On Loving the ChurchI once knew a dean who, in the midst of searching for a new faculty member, had a question about one of the candidates under consideration. This candidate had all the credentials. But the dean had a nagging doubt about him because he had written some pretty scathing, very negative criticisms of the church. So the dean called a pastor who knew the candidate well. And he asked the pastor: "Is this person someone who loves the church enough to criticize it? Or does he really just have contempt for the church? What is the source of his criticism? If he loves the church enough to critique the church, we need him and want him on our faculty. But if he does not love the church, if he only has contempt for the church, I think we should look elsewhere."

    This dean told me that he sat there, with the phone receiver in hand, waiting a long time for the answer. After a very long pause, the pastor, who knew the candidate well and liked him very much, said, "I think you should keep looking."

    This conversation reminds me of a very funny chapter in a very funny book by Daniel Zeluff. The book, which came out while I was in seminary, is titled, There’s Algae in the Baptismal "Fount" (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978). Zeluff could be quite a critic of the church himself. The chapter I have in mind is titled, "I must be a prophet, else why are they stoning me?" The point of the chapter is not a denunciation of the role of actual prophets, though there's a good deal of suspicion in the chapter about self-proclaimed prophets; instead, the chapter lifts up the role of the pastor who is willing to love his or her people into righteousness rather than merely judging them for weaknesses and failures that are common to all people to one degree or another.

    Barbara Brown Taylor, a couple of years ago, from this very pulpit, reminded us that, as pastors and church leaders, some of our best teachers are the folks in our churches who will never agree with us. That's true. And it is a sign of God's good grace that God will bring us folks who never agree with us, folks who will never even like us, in every congregation. But in a larger sense, the church herself often plays this role, the role of gadfly teacher.

    The Holy Spirit speaks and works through the people of God. Often unevenly, sometimes at a maddeningly slow pace, but the Spirit of God is at work in and among these people. And usually I have found that the Spirit of God works through the people of God far more reliably and truly than through me as an individual.

    Often we, as your teachers, want you to fall in love with our disciplines. I'm a theologian, so it is only natural that I want you to fall in love with theology. Someone else may want you to fall in love with New Testament or Old Testament, or Christian ethics, or pastoral counseling. Today, I want to encourage you to fall in love with the church, though I truly cannot charge you to do so. No one can charge another person to love. But I do ask you, and I do encourage you to love the church. Unfaithful though the church sometimes is, inconsistent in its service to God, even unreliable in its quest for justice, the church is still the Body of Christ. And that's not just a metaphor, that’s a theological fact.

    In recent days, I have been reminded of what it means to love the church by the example of our friend Dr. David Hester. David was a fine scholar, a great teacher and a theological leader. David was also a pastor. David was dedicated to justice. And David loved the church through which Jesus Christ continues to offer himself on behalf of this broken world that God loves.

    So this is my encouragement, if not my charge, to you: Love the church. Learn the humility that will make it possible to love the church. Love the church enough to respect the wisdom and grace of the people who make up the church. Love the church not for what it could be, but for who it is. For God's sake love God's people.

    And now receive the benediction: May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you always. Amen.

  • The Thrill is Gone

    by Michael Jinkins | May 18, 2015

    BB KingThe year was 1969. I was sixteen. The moment is scorched into my mind. Ben Norrod and I are sitting in his room listening to a recording that would go on to win a Grammy Award in 1970 and eventually earn a coveted place on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of Greatest Songs of All Time: “The Thrill is Gone.” Ben and I were both musicians, and we listened to that record until the grooves nearly wore away.

    B.B. King’s voice was like gravel and honey. And Lucille, his Gibson guitar named for a woman who caused a barroom brawl and conflagration early in his career, well, she sang with a voice all her own. B.B. said he played his solos in the higher register because his hearing wasn’t very good and that way he could hear Lucille sing. Together they made up the greatest musical team in history.

    I grew up in deep East Texas on a diet of music that knew no categories except “good” and “bad.” We were catholic listeners, and we loved them all from Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys to Muddy Waters. Great music poured out of East Texas dance halls I was told never to visit and radio stations from Houston and New Orleans. There was so much great music. But B.B. was unique, and we loved him uniquely. As I moved from one band to another in those days of late nights and long music sessions and other things that will remain hidden in history, from pick-up bands that stayed together just long enough to play one dance to groups that lasted a year or two, covering everything from Blood, Sweat and Tears standards to Bob DylanElton John and James Taylor, B.B. King was a fixed point on a compass that spun like it was driven by the winds of change.

    My children, Jeremy and Jessica, were brought up on B.B. King along with a lot of other great rock, country, blues, R&B, and jazz. When the kids were teenagers, Debbie gave me a Father’s Day gift of a day with them at an all-day Austin City Limits Blues concert. Debbie and Jessica had to leave before Buddy Guy and B.B. came on stage in the evening, but Jeremy and I were there to see the King of Blues, by then too old to stand for long. He sat on a stool and sang and played. His fingers were not as quick as they once had been, but even then his voice was pure magic, transporting us from Austin to the Mississippi Delta that his heart never entirely left.

    The great irony of the blues is just how happy it makes you to play it. The blues draws you in and reminds you that being human isn’t easy, loving isn’t easy, and neither is dying. We are not alone in our unease. Others have the blues too. There’s a community of the blues, and it is not limited by age, creed or race.

    I know this may seem sacrilegious to some people to say this, but when I heard that B.B. died, I couldn’t help but remember something Daniel Patrick Moynihan said when his friend President John F. Kennedy was murdered. Someone said to Moynihan, “We’ll never be happy again.” To which Moynihan responded, “We’ll be happy again. But we’ll never be young again.”

    Over the next several days and maybe weeks, I’ll be listening to B.B. King a lot. Listening and remembering. And I will be very sad. I know I’ll be happy again, but there’s no way to recapture that moment at sixteen when Ben and I huddled round that record player and thrilled for the first time.

    The thrill is gone, at least for today.

  • A Leadership Notebook: When to Sweat the Small Stuff

    by Michael Jinkins | May 15, 2015

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    When to Sweat the Small StuffSome time ago I mentioned a now classic essay by Charles F. Knight in the Harvard Business Review in which the author, almost as a side comment, said that most companies fail for “non-analytical reasons.”1 His point was that most of the time when our organizations fail, it is not because we didn’t understand what to do, we simply didn’t do what we knew we should. Oftentimes (to paraphrase Robert Burns) “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” because we don’t manage the details.

    Let me give you a purely hypothetical example.

    A large church with a professional staff and a session well-stocked with highly capable folks decides to embark on a capital campaign. They have polled the congregation about the church’s and community’s needs. They have carefully analyzed these needs and have developed a compelling case statement for why the church should embark on this capital campaign. They have interviewed some of the most generous givers in the congregation to find out if they believe the church has a solid case and how that case might best be framed. They spent months using a variety of tools to analyze the giving potential of their congregation. They laid careful plans to ensure that they have not overshot the mark of what they are capable of raising. Their leadership has carefully crafted a beautiful letter co-signed by the head of the campaign (a widely respected elder representing the session) and the church’s senior pastor. The letter will be sent to all members along with a professionally-produced case statement that conveys how crucial this campaign is to sustain and expand the vital missions of the church. The office staff gets to work pulling together the mailing list and sends out the letters.

    But within a few days, the pastor’s secretary gets an angry call from a longtime member, Frederick Arthur David, a beloved and well-known retired physician known to everyone as “Bud.” When the pastor talks to Bud on the phone, he finds out that the letter Bud received from “the church in which I was baptized, the church in which I was married, the church in which my mother and father’s memorial services were conducted, the church to which I gave the stained glass windows that now illuminate the chancel in honor of my wife, Anne, whose funeral you performed last spring” had been sent a “form letter” addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. David Arthur” with the salutation, “Dear David and Anna.”

    The conclusion Bud says he was hesitantly forced to draw is that the church he has loved his whole life doesn’t remember his name, doesn’t remember that his wife “ANNE” died last year, or just doesn’t care.

    After taking full responsibility for the mistake, apologizing, and listening carefully, the pastor asks if he can come over to Bud’s house and visit with him. Over the course of the next few days, this fence will be mended because Bud loves his church and trusts his pastor of fifteen years.

    Unfortunately this turned out to be just the first shoe to drop.

    Within a week the staff realizes that somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 in every 10 letters sent out in the mailing have similar problems. Or worse! It is about this time that they realize too that they were really fortunate with Bud, because a long relationship of trust and affection existed between him and his church and his pastor. This was not the case with other members.

    As research has shown, newer members of a congregation and members with few deep, close, long-established ties to the life of the church are willing to base their entire evaluation of a church and its pastors on very little information, perhaps only a single brief conversation. Receiving a campaign letter that appears to treat them as just nameless members of the herd may be enough to end their relationship with this church.

    It is about this point in my telling of this purely hypothetical story that everyone hearing it who has ever been responsible for a major capital campaign may begin to look a little shaken and to feel a little nauseated.

    Despite great analysis, excellent planning, carefully laid groundwork, and beautiful production of campaign materials, the launch of this capital campaign was undercut by a lack of attention to details. What might have been a great opportunity for the congregation turned out otherwise. Instead of making follow-up visits to take the next step of asking members to contribute to the campaign, a great deal of time and energy now has to be devoted to convincing many of the congregation’s members that their church really does know them and really does care about them.

    Sometimes the small stuff isn’t small. And it matters a great deal that those who are checking the details are detail people.

    This is one of those instances in which good management can contribute to effective leadership. Conversely it reminds us that poor management can undercut our every attempt to lead well.

    1Charles F. Knight, “Emerson Electric: Consistent Profits, Consistently,” Harvard Business Review, January-February, 1992, 57.

  • The Capacity to Hope

    by Michael Jinkins | May 11, 2015

    Capacity for HopeOften when I start reading a book, I skip the preface, acknowledgements and foreword. I sometimes read the introduction if it appears to hold important information, but most of the time I just want to get into to "the book."

    Recently I paused to read a preface that may just make me pause more often at those pages numbered with the small Roman numerals. The book itself is a selection of John Cassian's Conferences in "The Classics of Western Spirituality" series published by Paulist Press (1985). The preface was written by Colm Luibhéid who also translated the selections. (The introduction to the volume, incidentally, was written by the great Church historian Owen Chadwick; as excellent and informative as it is, it is Luibhéid's preface that steals the show.)

    Luibhéid brings to the pedestrian task of preface-writing rare elegance and thoughtfulness. He creates one of those moments when the reader feels compelled to stop, lay the book aside for a few moments and reflect on his or her own faith.

    Luibhéid does this in the course of describing John Cassian's contributions to Christian thought. Cassian (c.365- c.435), a contemporary of St. Augustine of Hippo, is known in our time primarily as a key theologian for the Benedictine movement. Drawing on some of the most important theological sources of the early church, particularly Evagrius Ponticus (of whom I have written recently), and deeply inspired by the lives of the Egyptian "Desert Fathers," John Cassian brought the wisdom of the East to the Western church. Rather than restricting himself, however, to a discussion of Cassian's influences and impact, Luibhéid takes us into the heart of Cassian's message.

    He explains that "in his way John Cassian is someone responding as he can to the old problem of what to make of the life one has. And that problem in its turn rests on the deeper one of making sense of whatever reality we have happened to meet. Is reality any deeper than the farthest reach of our own perceptive capacities? Is this - what we encounter - all of it? It nags and worries. It surfaces in a sick man amid the fading of things. It presses on the spectator of a dead child. Can this be all of it?" (References are to page xii of the preface.)

    Then, Luibhéid turns to a very brief survey of possible responses to "the old problem of what to make of the life one has." He speaks first of the "teacher" who is capable of evoking through "the expert marshaling of words" a level of confidence that seems to virtually guarantee "the existence of awesome and accessible domains of transcendence." We don't know whether Luibhéid is speaking here from an autobiographical perspective or is critiquing other persuasive teachers. But many teachers and preachers will recognize the danger of too-glibly relying on eloquence and persuasion in response to "the old problem."

    Next, he describes the opposite confidence of a thinker, like the classical writer Lucretius, who asserts that all hope based on transcendence is worse than mistaken, it is "craven, degenerate superstition" which "has managed to poison the wells of living." There are legions today who are only too ready to pour scorn on the hope and faith of others in the name of science or humanity or justice or some other lofty good.

    Luibhéid contrasts both brands of over-confidence - of credulity and scoffing - by appealing to the poet Seamus Heaney who leaves aside questions of transcendence, seeking reality "more quietly, more humbly" in paying supreme attention to the physical world, to "a chunky rock" or "the recurring flavors of a type of wine." Believing in anything beyond that which can be touched, smelled and tasted, from this perspective, "is to take too great a chance," writes Luibhéid.

    "But," he continues, "the willingness to take just such a chance is surely the mark of the Christian. A creature of the day and of circumstance, the Christian nevertheless claims, at times weakly, at times with powerful courage, that God does indeed exist, that there is somewhere an enduring and timeless domain where the burdened heart may aspire to find ease. The Christian has in him the capacity to hope for better things."

    Hope, we are reminded in this exquisite preface, is not born from a spirit of optimism, nor from any confidence one may have in oneself or one's circumstance. It is the unique product of trust in a God who is faithful to fulfill promises long made and against all odds.

  • What Do You Wear When You Pray?

    by Michael Jinkins | May 05, 2015

    What do you wearRecently Jay Warthen, a two-time alum (1977 and 1985) of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, sent me the following quote from Mark Twain in response to a blog I had posted. The quote is from Twain’s novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

    “I could have given my own sect the preference and made everybody a Presbyterian without any trouble, but that would have been to affront a law of human nature: spiritual wants and instincts are as various in the human family as are physical appetites, complexions, and features, and a [person] is only at his best, morally, when he is equipped with the religious garment whose color and shape and size most nicely accommodate themselves to the spiritual complexion, angularities, and stature of the individual who wears it; and besides I was afraid of a united Church; it makes a mighty power, the mightiest conceivable, and then when it by and by gets into selfish hands, as it is always bound to do, it means death to human liberty, and paralysis to human thought.”

    This is a great quote from one of America’s most original thinkers, and a quote that proves conclusively that if Twain understood himself to be an agnostic, he was certainly a Protestant agnostic.

    Among the several ideas Twain presents in this tightly packed paragraph, the one I want us to focus on today is the way in which our religious beliefs fit us like the clothes we wear. I’ll wager we have all met people who wore the beliefs handed down by their parents like an ill-fitting suit of clothes until one day they suddenly seem to realize, “Wow, this heavy wool three-piece tweed thing may have worked for my great-great-grandfather, but it just isn’t me!” The next time you see this person at prayer, they’re worshipping in something that fits them better. It can go the other way too, of course. Someone may have been seen for years trying on first this spiritual costume and then another, only to realize that the dress her mother wore to worship fit exactly right all along, though she needed to take it in here and there and raise the hem.

    I’ve simply quit trying to figure out what makes faith fit the person, but I suspect that much of fitness is reflected in Anne Lamott’s reflection that “All truth is a paradox. Life is a precious unfathomably beautiful gift; and it is impossible here, on the incarnational side of things.”

    One of my all-time favorite books is William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (originally published in 1902 after having been presented as the Gifford Lectures in Scotland). Martin Marty referred to James, in the Penguin edition of this classic this way: James “seems at times to be someone who has come to believe in believing, and lets it go at that; to be a voyeur of experiencers, and then let them go their way.”1 This is probably true, provided we also realize that at least one of the experiencers of believing on whom William James reports in his book is none other than William James himself.

    What I find in James is something toward which I hope we all aspire: a generosity of spirit to listen to other people’s descriptions of their spiritual lives on their own terms. William James was helped in doing this because of his own largeness of spirit and his natural curiosity. I hope that the motivation for my own desire to do this is a generosity of spirit helped along with a belief that God is up to far more in this world than I can possibly ever imagine. No matter what any of our creeds may confess (and some of our creeds are far more generous on this point than some of us), God is not bound to meet humanity according to our rules; so it only makes sense that God meets others in ways that are appropriate to their cultures and societies and tribes.

    A few years ago, I was visiting with a rabbi friend. He had recently returned from a trip to Mongolia. While there, he stayed with a Mongolian family. One evening the father in this family asked my friend a question: “What apparel do you wear when you pray?” My friend was delighted by the question, and he showed his host his prayer shawl. The man admiringly examined the shawl and showed my friend the clothes he put on to pray.

    I suppose we could push Mark Twain’s figure of speech to the point where it would no longer be helpful. But taken lightly, it may be not only interesting but also potentially revealing. And it is even more interesting and potentially revealing today when there are folks who find it necessary to put on the spiritual garments (metaphorically speaking) of two or three faith traditions in order to adequately bear witness to God as God has met them. There are varieties of religious experience because God has blessed creation with the gift of variety.

    1Martin E. Marty, “Introduction,” William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin Classics, 1982), xxvi.

  • A Leadership Notebook: Almost Anything Can Work a Little Better

    by Michael Jinkins | May 01, 2015

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    Nothing WorksWhen it comes to amazing insights for leadership, nothing beats an insight from Loren B. Mead which I first came across years ago in a little book he wrote titled: The Whole Truth About Everything Related to the Church in Twelve Pages (if you don’t count the introduction and conclusion). It was first published by the Alban Institute in 1988.

    This book has been on my list of required texts for several courses. It is – for obvious reasons – a favorite among students whose written reviews of the book have sometimes rivaled the book’s length.

    The first two chapters alone were worth the $6.95 I paid for my copy of the book. In fact, the titles of the first two chapters were worth the seven bucks:

    Chapter 1: “Nothing works”

    Chapter 2: “Almost anything can work a little better”

    The theological astuteness of chapter one brings to mind the historic doctrine of the church, “original sin,” which teaches us that everything is broken. Maybe it is not all broken. But all is somehow broken.

    Mead said of this point, “I keep running into people who think what they are doing or inventing will work. It won’t. Nothing works. If you begin there, you have a chance. Understand that. Savor it, even.”

    Not only is this a profound restatement of the doctrine of “original sin” with which anyone in leadership can immediately resonate, it is also a wonderful expression of humility. Those who pretend that some things really do work, Mead reminds us, are lying. He says this with a twinkle in his eye and the most delightfully wry smile, but he is not joking.

    We live in a fallen world. It really is fallen, not just stumbling, not just tripping and regaining its balance at the last moment, but fallen. Splat. The world is splayed across the sidewalk, its coffee spilled, its Danish bouncing out into the traffic. Oops, there goes a taxi now crushing the warm pastry and splashing the world’s face from a puddle into the gutter to boot. And when the world falls, it takes everything down with it.

    “Nothing works.”

    Mead’s next point is just as important: “Almost anything can work a little better.” He continues:

    “Does that surprise you? Nobody talks about this one, either. What this means is that the grass is not greener in the next pasture, but that the dry, brown, mangy stuff peering out of the cracks in the clay of your front yard might, just might, have some life in it. It may take some weeding and some digging, some watering and some fertilizing, but it’s got some chance of life. What’s more, it’s likely to be the only chance you are going to have to grow a lawn.”

    Among the other ten chapters in the book (the ten pages in which we learn everything there is to know about the church) are the following points:

    • “There are no quick answers”
    • “There may not be an answer”
    • “There’s no such thing as strategy – just tactics” (I would quibble with him over this point, but he makes a valid argument.)
    • “There are no big deals anymore”
    • “Money won’t solve your problem”
    • “A new bishop (or pastor or executive) won’t solve your problem”
    • “You can’t get there from here”
    • “You won’t get anywhere if you don’t start from here”
    • “Ministry is the journey, not the destination”

    But as interesting and often wise as all of these one-page chapters are, Mead’s great insight is right there in chapters one and two: “Nothing works” “Almost anything can work a little better.”

    There are two serious observations I want to make about Mead’s message.

    First: I have never read these chapters aloud that the room full of leaders with whom I was working didn’t laugh out loud. Sometimes the laughter began with a few snickers of self-recognition before it grew into full-fledged belly laughter, but every group to whom I have presented this insight have laughed. They immediately see the humor in themselves and in the organizations they lead. As became clear in the conversations that developed in the workshops and classes in which I’ve used Mead’s book, the leaders found hope – sometimes significant hope – in his wisdom.

    This has helped me to realize that often the most important thing we can do is to reframe a situation in which we find ourselves in ways that draw out its implicit humor.
    Seriousness is not a sign of organizational health. Really. And a lack of humor (or chronic seriousness) certainly doesn’t contribute to the health of those in leadership. Even as a sense of humor is a sign of intelligence, a sense of humor also points toward institutions and leadership that possess the right combination of humility, self-awareness and the smarts necessary “to make a real go of it.”

    Second: There’s just no substitute for reality. And when we hear those words, “Nothing works” and “Almost anything can work a little better”, we have the sense that we are looking right into the face of what is real.

    The older I get the more suspicious I become of those who make any kind of claims about efficacy (though I, along with Garrison Keillor and many, many true Calvinists, remain a true believer in the efficacy of oat meal). The larger the claims to something working, the more suspicious I am. Massive, all-embracing solutions leave me cold. And the very prospect of utopias makes my skin crawl. Yet, I am more optimistic than I’ve ever been that we can get something done. Something. Not everything.

    Mead is, if anything, even more suspicious than I am that everyone who makes gigantic claims is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. The idea that “Nothing works” but “Almost anything can work a little better” is not, as he readily admits, “very exciting. It doesn’t sell very well.” But I think he is right, and, as he says, it isn’t all bad news. “The good thing,” he says, “is that this gives you a way to go.”

    Indeed it does.

  • Zen Calvinism and the Art of Leadership

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 27, 2015

    Zen Calvinism"Is there ever going to be a day of unalloyed joy in this job?" asked my friend as I walked into his office.

    The day was supposed to be a day of celebration. That's how it had started. Champagne was purchased, the troops assembled. After a toast was made and a short speech commemorating the generous gifts that had put the organization over its goal for the capital campaign, everyone went back to their offices aglow. They had all played their parts, of course. The honor of the moment belonged most of all to the organization's president and the fund development staff, but everyone would benefit from the gifts the campaign accrued. And as everyone had done what they could to bring success, all basked in the satisfaction that comes from contributing to a successful venture.

    Thirty minutes after the celebration ended, however, a smoldering dispute between two staff members blew up into a full-scale conflagration engulfing pretty nearly everyone else in the organization. Recriminations abounded, and a routine staff meeting later that afternoon turned into an apocalyptic nuclear event, the fallout from which seemed to threaten the very core of the organization's mission and the integrity of its leadership.

    One might simply chalk it all up to another confirmation of Edwin Friedman's maxim: When things start going really well, watch out! Or one could sit amid the ashes of Calvinist confession aware that creation just keeps on falling. Or one could find in this situation a corollary to the First Noble Truth of Buddhist thought as restated by psychotherapist Mark Epstein: Life is persistently unsatisfactory.

    All three interpretations of my friend's mixed day ring true. And all three remind us of a painful fact of life and leadership.

    Nothing stays fixed.

    You can read this statement in at least two ways, and the two are closely related: (1) Nothing stays nailed down. All things are in motion all of the time. All things are always changing, whether you notice it or not. (2) Nothing stays in good repair for long, especially when it comes to complex human associations. A triumph in personnel may be followed by a disaster in facilities, as every chief operating officer of every company knows. A joy in worship can yield, five minutes later, to a concern in pastoral care, as all pastors recognize.

    We seem startled by the continuous movement, variability and shifting of life. Yet, we know that life's transitory character is one of its basic features.

    I am reminded of this whenever we have the opportunity to drive to our home on Saint Simons Island, just off the coast of southern Georgia. Most of the time, when we drive there, our route takes us through the hills of Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee and across the mountains of North Carolina, places where change is noticeable mostly in the seasons, not in the tough, seeming permanence of the rocky terrain. But when we arrive at the coast, the mask of earthly permanence slips, and the world's true nature peeks through. From one visit to the next, sometimes from one day to the next, sandbars shift on the back of powerful tides, dunes move at the mercy of relentless Atlantic winds, new streams cut their way through the vast tidal marshes and new islands appear in the rivers emptying into the ocean. You can feel the earth quiver in its liminal state between solid and fluid right between your toes walking on the beach.

    Do the mountains ever change? Of course they do, as do the plains and deserts, cornfields and forests, but mostly at a rate that we detect either through the cycle of the seasons or over centuries, even millennia. Coastal environs simply exegete the reality of contingency common to the whole earth, though disguised in most places.

    We can fool ourselves into believing that the world, our world, is static, and so we can cling to the ways existence is arranged and all that we seem to hold firmly in it. We can imagine that our lives, our arrangements, our relationships, our accomplishments all stand immovable. But this is an illusion. The sands and tidal grasslands and coastal inlets and islands provide a clearer lesson of that which is ultimately universally true. The sands do shift. So does everything else. And the wise learn to adapt their footing wherever they stand.

    These reflections are, of course, fundamental both to Calvinists and to Zen masters. From Calvinism, we learn to watch for the hand of God amid life's inevitable changes and to entrust our lives and all of life to the God whom we believe is trustworthy. From Zen, we learn to appreciate the impermanence of life, to accept it, and to locate ourselves within in it - and not in futile opposition to it.

    There is a sense in which we are so preoccupied by the way things were and so distracted by the way things may be that we miss the wonder of the way things are.

    The fact that nothing stays fixed, in the sense that everything changes, reminds us of our own impermanence, our mortality. The fact that nothing stays fixed, in the sense that nothing stays in good repair, reminds us that we are not omnipotent. There is a gift hidden within the awareness that we are mortal and that we are not all-powerful. We are human. We are not God. The past is not within our power and ultimately the future is beyond our control. Our regrets about the one and our anxieties about the other have the capacity to rob us of that which really is within our scope, dealing with the present with full-attentiveness, with courage, integrity, grace, justice and love.

    This insight applies to leadership as well as to life.

    Thich Nhat Hahn, in his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999) speaks of the practice of washing the dishes "mindfully." Rather than dreading the chore as necessary toil, trudging through it wishing we were doing something else, or racing through it anticipating what we will finally get to do when we finish the chore, Hahn reflects on the mundane joy of doing this most mundane task fully engaged. We feel the warmth of the water, the slipperiness of the soap, the sponge as it cleans a dish, the hot rinse under the tap, and finally placing the plate on the drying rack. Each act is attended with minds awake to the moment until all of the job is done. The person who races through the job of washing the dishes, anticipating that when he is done he will reward himself for the toil with a nice cup of tea, is unlikely to fully attend to the "reward" of the tea any more than the "chore" of washing up.

    Does this mean that we shouldn't plan for the future and evaluate how we have performed in the past? Of course not. What it means is this: When we set aside times and occasions to plan, we should plan. And we should bring to bear in those exercises all the tools of anticipation and capacities for analysis available to us. When we set aside times and occasions to evaluate, we should evaluate. And when we do, we should direct our full attention to this crucial work. In whatever we do, we should be mindful of that to which we have given ourselves. This is both a discipline of stewardship and a practice of the spirit.

    Nothing stays fixed. In a single day we shall move from that task accomplished with satisfaction to a new challenge which requires our best attention. The "canvas" on which the leader practices his or her art is more like the sandy surface of the beach than it is the granite of a mountain canyon. When the next tide wipes much of it clean, we will start again.

  • Noble Truths

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 21, 2015

    Noble Truths 3Most faiths have their core touchstone tenets.

    For Judaism, it is: "Hear, O Israel, The Lord is God, The Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." (Deuteronomy 6:5)

    For Christianity, it is found in the gospels. We remember the teaching as The Greatest Commandment, which combines two core teachings from the Torah: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." (Luke 10:27)

    For Buddhism, the touchstone teachings are contained in The Four Noble Truths, the first of which is often translated as "all life is suffering." This translation, however, has led (or misled) many people to believe that Buddhism's teachings are more pessimistic than John Calvin on a rainy day. According to Mark Epstein, a psychotherapist who has written extensively on the subject, the First Noble Truth should be rendered rather differently.

    Epstein explains: "When I first discovered Buddhism, I was taken with its no-nonsense appraisal of the human condition. ‘All life is suffering,’ the Buddha taught in the first of his Four Noble Truths." However sensible Epstein discerned this teaching to be, he couldn't help but think that the statement tended to be a bit melodramatic, "even if a careful reading of history seemed to support it." Then he found out something illuminating. The word dukkha, which is usually translated as "suffering," in fact "has a more subtle meaning of pervasive unsatisfactoriness." This made even more sense to him, especially in light of his experience as a psychiatrist. He continues: "Even the most pleasurable experiences are tinged with this sense of discontent because of how transient and insubstantial they are. They do not offset the insecurity, instability and unrest that we feel."1

    If Epstein is right, "All life is pervasively unsatisfactory" would be a much more accurate rendering, then, of the First Noble Truth of Buddhism. Obviously there are examples of profound suffering. Disease, natural disasters and wars come to mind as causative forces of human suffering. But, as Epstein observes, a thread of unsatisfactoriness also runs right through all of life. Even the most wonderful, exhilarating, jubilant moments in life often are framed with something else.

    A baby is born, but even as the family gathers at the window of the nursery in the hospital, their faces reflecting their joy and wonder at new life, their happiness is tinged with sorrow because a beloved grandmother died before she could see the child born.

    A couple marries, but even while on their honeymoon, they find themselves quarreling over the cost of a dinner and which road to take in a strange town. Tears replace laughter as they come to terms with the negotiations that inevitably make up so much of our most intimate relationships.

    A congregation consisting largely of people who have known one another since grade school, people who have lived close to one another and supported one another through many of life's ups and downs, finds itself divided by positions its denomination has taken.

    Life is pervasively unsatisfactory, even when it is far more than merely satisfactory, even when it is wonderful. This reframing of Buddhism's touchstone tenet may have something to teach non-Buddhists, especially those of us whose faith takes into account the empirical reality often referred to in classical Christian theology as "original sin," the brokenness of creation that goes beyond individual acts of sin and is woven into the warp and woof of existence.

    When we speak of the theological symbol of "The Fall," we gesture toward the mysterious and puzzling fact that this glorious creation is not only good - indeed, very, very good, as we are told in Genesis - but flawed. Even the best of actions are tainted with something not so good; (perhaps even more irritatingly) bad actions by people we take to be pretty disreputable often may be "tainted" by goodness. Not everything fallen about the world can be characterized in moral terms. There's something about the is-ness of the world that isn't quite right. When the Bible says that all creation groans for redemption, it really does mean all of creation and not just the human beings. But we humans have our own distinctive place among all creation as we long for shalom, peace, wholeness.

    Christian theology speaks of the longing for wholeness that invites us to hope, to hope for justice, for peace, for the reign of God. Many have observed that the doctrine of eschatology is rooted in this longing. Others have noted that the concepts undergirding the philosophical quest we often describe under the category of ontology are rooted in this longing.

    Epstein, himself rooted and grounded in his psychiatric practice and his practice of Buddhism, warns us of a less than desirable aspect of our longing, even our longing for wholeness. He writes:

    "In the Buddhist world, this longing for an imagined wholeness is portrayed in what is called the Six Realms of Existence, an age-old method of conceptualizing psychic reality that is a very compelling Eastern model of the mind. … One of the Six Realms is that of the Hungry Ghosts, beings who are in a state of chronic deprivation and longing, always searching for a nourishment that they are not equipped to digest. Hungry Ghosts haunt the offices of psychotherapists."

    They haunt churches and seminaries and family rooms and offices too. And, as Epstein himself observes, "The most disturbing aspect of the Hungry Ghost psychology is that no satisfaction is possible."2

    This is where I especially want to see us bring the wisdom of our various spiritual, religious and theological traditions into conversation. A deep awareness of the "pervasive unsatisfactoriness" of life is a good starting point, and a helpful re-framing of reality. A grateful reception and blessing of "the world that is" (as a gift of God) builds on this foundation. However, I think another step is required to put to rest the Hungry Ghosts, particularly those that haunt our own hearts. Without letting go of those healthy aspects of longing (whether for a more just world or for the reign of God) which motivate us to act for justice, kindness and peace, we can entrust this un-whole existence to God in the confidence that God is doing for us and for those we love better things than we can ask or imagine.

    The God who placed in us our longings also offers rest from these longings. In this paradox, we can find the wholeness that often eludes us.

    1I am indebted to Stephen Prothero for encouraging me a few years ago to read Mark Epstein's Open to Desire: The Truth about What the Buddha Taught, (New York: Gotham Books, 2005). The passages quoted appear on page 4.
    2Epstein, p. 98-99.

  • A Leadership Notebook: Negotiating Difference

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 17, 2015

    Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

    TOLLeadership041715Of the great insights that have emerged in the study of leadership over the past generation, none have been more important than those shared by Roger Fisher and William Ury (et al) of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Many ideas that leaders in education, industry, politics, diplomacy and religion now take for granted were first formulated in the project.

    Together, Fisher and Ury published, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981). A string of other valuable resources followed: Getting Together: Building Relationships As We Negotiate (co-authored by Roger Fisher and Scott Brown; New York: Viking/Penguin, 1988); Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations (authored by William Ury; New York: Bantam Books, 1991); and Beyond Machiavelli: Tools for Coping with Conflict [co-authored by Roger Fisher, Elizabeth (Kopelman) Borgwardt and Andrea Kupfer Schneider; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994]. These books are consistently evaluated among the most valuable resources I assign in courses and workshops on conflict and negotiation.

    In Getting to Yes, Fisher and Ury say that the spark which got the whole project going was a question: “What is the best way for people to deal with their differences?”

    They cast a broad net when dealing with differences: a lawsuit arising from a car accident, a dispute among corporate leaders attempting to engage in a joint venture, a city official meeting with union leaders to avert a transit strike, a Secretary of State trying to negotiate an agreement limiting nuclear weapons, or a married couple discussing whose turn it is to pick up the children from daycare and who should get supper started. Negotiating our differences is a common feature of life. Some of the insights shared in these books emerged from the negotiation of major international situations, such as President Jimmy Carter’s Camp David Accord. Any pastor or school principal will immediately resonate to the wisdom, even if the differences being negotiated are on a much more intimate scale than Middle Eastern relations.

    Among the insights that I have found most valuable – and which a generation of leaders have used most often – is this: “Arguing over positions produces unwise agreements.”

    Using a variety of stories from an array of leadership situations, they introduce a set of revolutionary insights under the banner of “principled negotiation or negotiation on the merits,” which “can be boiled down to four basic points:”

    • “Separate the people from the problem.”
    • “Focus on interests, not positions.”
    • “Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do.”
    • “Insist that the result be based on some objective standards.”

    Rather than casting those who have a difference as opponents, they say: “Figuratively if not literally, the participants [in a negotiation] should come to see themselves as working side by side, attacking the problem, not each other.” Depersonalizing the situation can significantly reduce the animus among disagreeing parties. Every effort should be made to grant the assumption that everyone involved wants the best possible outcome for everyone. This is a basic step in negotiations that is neglected at considerable peril. And the second point they make is, if anything, even more important because when people assume negotiating positions, they “often obscure what [they] really want.” Thus it is crucial for all parties to discern and communicate what their actual interests or needs are, and not to focus on their bargaining positions.

    In one story in the project’s resources, a sort of fable is told about two children arguing over the last orange in the family kitchen. The parent, tired of the hearing the argument, cuts the orange in half and hands half to each child. Unfortunately, the solution didn’t address the actual interests of the children. One child needed the peel of an orange for a recipe while her sibling just wanted to eat an orange. As it happened, one girl took her half outside, promptly peeling the orange and throwing the peel away; while the other girl peeled her half, throwing away the meat of the orange and grating the peel (unfortunately too little to make a success of her recipe). If their parent had helped the children articulate their actual interests (rather than their bargaining positions: “I want the last orange!”) the needs of both children could have been happily (and more successfully) met. As small and domestic as this story is, it expresses an insight that has proven enormously helpful in all sorts of negotiations.

    About ten years after the publication of Getting to Yes, Ury wrote a sequel, Getting Past No, where he dealt with a problem that many people in leadership have expressed: What do you do when your potential partner in a negotiation is reluctant or unwilling to negotiate in good faith?

    I have found Ury’s Getting Past No as valuable if not more valuable than his and Fisher’s Getting to Yes. But “getting past no” requires a great deal more than just reframing an issue, as important as reframing undoubtedly is. “Getting past no,” according to Ury, requires a five-step strategy that has as much to do with managing oneself as it does with managing the game of negotiations. As Ury explains, “To get past no, you must overcome each of these barriers to cooperation: [the other person’s] negative emotions, … negotiating habits, … skepticism about the benefits of agreement, … perceived power, and your reaction.”

    Ury explains how we can learn not to react when we feel angry or afraid by “going to the balcony.” He offers great tactics for finding emotional distance in the midst of a conflict so that we can respond in an emotionally appropriate (and wise) manner, rather than merely reacting from our limbic system.

    He also explains how we can learn to disarm someone who sees himself or herself as an opponent by “stepping to their side” and consciously reflecting on the problem at hand from the perspective of the other person. It is often true that the other person simply does not feel listened to, so, we should make every effort to give them a hearing.

    Other basic “active listening” skills can really help diffuse a tense situation: Listen more than you talk; paraphrase the arguments being made by the other person and ask them for clarification to make sure you understand them as they want to be understood (rather than caricaturing and stereotyping the “other side”); acknowledge the feelings and perspective of the other person; agree when it is appropriate (and honest) to do so; accumulate all the yeses you can in the course of negotiating; show respect for the other person’s authority and competence; make clear “I” statements and avoid blaming “you” statements.

    These are just a few of the tactics Ury teaches. Perhaps the best of his insight is the one he borrows from Sun Tzu (author of The Art of War): “Build your adversary a golden bridge to retreat across.” He reminds us that a gloating winner is a real loser, and that often someone on the verge of negotiating the right outcome loses everything by causing the other person to lose face.

    Fifteen years of knowledge and wisdom garnered by the Harvard Negotiation Project cannot be communicated in a blog, and some of the most helpful insights are contained in the final book in the series which deals specifically with conflict, Beyond Machiavelli. It is in this book that Fisher, Kopelman and Schneider offer a particularly powerful insight:

    “Our purpose in managing conflict cannot be to end all differences. Each party will always see its own reality – each will have strong partisan perceptions about the conflict and his or her role in it. A more useful question than ‘Who is right?’ is: ‘Given these strong partisan perceptions, how can we move forward?’ We need to find a way to cope with conflict despite the fact that people have differences.”

    Can we get an “Amen”?

  • The Invisible Revolution of Eastertide

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 14, 2015

    The INvisible Revolution of EastertideResurrection faith, chiefly because of its difficulties, has the ability to turn everything upside down. Our belief in the resurrection is the invisible revolution at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Imagining the unimaginable, the impossible possibility of resurrection has an effect that nothing else does. For the first followers of Christ, confronting the Risen Jesus exploded their hopes along with their disappointments. And the new hope given in meeting the Risen Christ empowered the disciples in ways they could never have imagined. Certainly this was also the case for Christians throughout the early church. If the Roman Empire lost its primary instrument (the threat of death) for enforcing compliance over Christians, then it effectively lost its power over them. Herein was sown the seeds of the end of the Roman Empire. Christian writers understood that the ripples of this invisible revolution would run through the whole of society. But the reason this revolution would run throughout society, eventually toppling an empire, was that it had already toppled the empire of the soul.

    Lewis Galloway, senior pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, recently reminded his congregation of the revolutionary power of the resurrection faith in his sermon, “So, What Do You Say?” (texts: Joshua 24:1-2a, 13-18; Mark 8:27-30). In his sermon, Lewis quoted Al Winn, former moderator of our church’s General Assembly and once president of Louisville Seminary. Al said in an Easter sermon in 1979: “Jesus will cause you to question everything you ever knew to be true and to believe everything you once doubted.”

    When we come face-to-face with the ultimate mystery of human existence (death) and discover that there is mystery greater even than this, we find ourselves in a whole new territory, a territory beyond our most distant boundaries.

    Toni Morrison, in one of the most compelling, beautiful and disturbing novels ever written, Beloved, brings her characters to just such a place, faced with mystery greater than death. The characters find themselves in relationship to a figure identified as “Beloved,” whose true identity remains shrouded even when virtually everyone knows she must be the ghost of a child who died in the midst of her mother’s struggles to break free from slavery. Beloved haunts her family, trying to settle down in freedom near Cincinnati. She seduces her mother’s lover, and brings everyone face-to-face with a reality that just can’t be real – but that must be. In the wake of the realignment of lives and hopes and fears that Beloved causes in her family, a consciousness arises that is summarized in a single statement: “Death is a skipped meal compared to this.” (Toni Morrison, Beloved, 1987)

    There’s a right time for everything. And, as I said recently in another blog, it seems to me that Easter morning may not be the best moment to affirm belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Amid the beautiful music, the spring sunshine and lilies, our affirmation feels a little like whistling past the graveyard. It seems to me that, at the very least, there are better moments, more timely moments, to make this affirmation. There may, in fact, be moments when it is not just appropriate, not just necessary, but essential to affirm our belief in the Risen Christ. As Miguel de Unamuno (who knew personally the terrors of life and death during the Spanish Civil War) once wrote, “I shall die reciting the Credo, but do not hang me by the neck before I have said: ‘I believe in the resurrection of the flesh.’” (The Agony of Christianity, New York: Ungar Publishing, 1960, p.117)

    The resurrection of Christ is the doctrine that enshrines impossibility at the heart of Christian faith. The Christian creed understands, even when we may not realize it, that nothing merely possible will do. And if the impossible is that which is necessary, what are we to make of life?

    As Al said, “Jesus will cause you to question everything you ever knew to be true and to believe everything you once doubted.” If Jesus doesn’t do this – and doesn’t do this even to our most precious beliefs and our biggest doubts – then maybe we just aren’t paying attention.

  • Subversive Verse

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 07, 2015

    Subversive VerseMost people who think they don't like poetry just don't like bad poetry. I'm with them.

    There's a particular broadcaster on a popular television show I regularly watch who periodically breaks into his homespun doggerel. At our house we love the program, but I find myself hitting mute every time he starts up with his "poetry." Tortured lines of iambic pentameter have never yielded so little save tortured clichés. His "poems" are the verse equivalent of every bad short story that ever began with the phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night," and every public speaker who ever uttered the words, "Unaccustomed as I am to speaking."

    Most people who think they don't like poetry are just waiting for good poetry. And when good poetry comes, it is worth waiting for.

    Good poetry does all sorts of good things: Surfaces insights sometimes in the most unpromising places. Surprises us with new perspectives on things long taken for granted. Engages the mind in the business of the senses. Awakens an awareness of just how much we shape the world around us by our perceptions of it. Makes us confront terror and hatred, violence and the ugliest aspects of this world, but in a way that enriches the soul rather than depletes the spirit. And, of course, takes our breath away with passages of startling beauty.

    My friend Mike Mather, the pastor of the Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, often alerts me to good poetry. His recent recommendation reminds me of poetry's subversive power. The book Mike recommended is titled, I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan, collected, translated and with commentary by Eliza Griswold, and with photographs by Seamus Murphy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).

    The book opens with these lines from a poem:

    “I call. You're stone.
    One day you'll look and find I'm gone.”

    Then this commentary by Eliza Griswold on the poem:

    “The teenage poet who uttered this folk poem called herself Rahila Muska. She lived in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold and one of the most restive of Afghanistan's thirty-four provinces since the U.S. invasion began on October 7, 2001. Muska, like many young and rural Afghan women, wasn't allowed to leave her home. Fearing that she'd be kidnapped or raped by warlords, her father pulled her out of school after the fifth grade. In her community, as in others, educating girls was seen as dishonorable and dangerous. Poetry, which she learned at home from women and on the radio, became her only continuing education.”

    Accompanied by comments by Griswold and with stark and frequently beautiful photographs by Murphy, each short poem confronts us with the voice of a woman, usually rural, usually without the benefit of a great deal of formal education, always Afghan. Landay poetry is a form of folk poetry from Afghanistan which is well-suited to these women: each poem is a couplet, limited to 22 syllables, nine in the first line, 13 in the second, and written in the language of these women. While some rhyme, most do not. They are thrown and turned on the mind's wheel like a clay jar before being handed on. Griswold tells us that landays are usually sung, and once were shared around the fires after a day's work was done. These days, she says, they may be shared more readily with strangers than with people who know the authors well and who might betray them. "Familiarity breeds distrust," she writes.

    Imagine a verse form that can range from fury to comic lampoon, from lament to a call for justice, but then add the earthy, the vulgar, the ribald and the risqué. In other words, many of the best (and certainly some of the funniest) landays in this volume cannot be shared in this blog. Indeed, I can only share a few for the sake of space, with some comments from the editor about the women who wrote them, beginning with a landay that has been treasured for more than a century and which was written by a nineteenth-century Afghan "folk heroine" and "warrior poet" named Malalai.

    “I'll make a tattoo of my lover's blood
    and shame each rose in the green garden.”

    We can see why this poem has been handed down for generations. But as good as it is, it is rivaled by a modern example:

    “Your eyes aren't eyes. They're bees.
    I can find no cure for their sting.”

    While some landays seem so rooted in an ancient culture that reading them feels like we are entering the foreign country of the past, others brush past us on a crowded modern street.

    "Daughter, in America the river isn't wet.
    Young girls learn to fill their jugs on the Internet."

    Some landays speak of love and longing. Others ridicule erstwhile, awkward and cruel lovers. Through these verses women are given the power and a place to articulate their disgust, dissatisfaction and anger. Still, other verses, while rooted in domestic relationships, take us beyond the domestic subversion between lovers to a social protest against the betrayal and violence of those closest at hand.

    “When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
    When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.”


    “You sold me to an old man, father.
    May God destroy your home; I was your daughter.”

    One of the most poignant landays in the book, and the one from which the title of the volume is taken, reflects the powerlessness of these women. It was spoken to the editor by an elderly woman, Ashaba, in a refugee camp, sitting next to her dying husband:

    “In my dream, I am the president.
    When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.”

    The political subversion in these verses reminds us that Afghanistan has been contested territory not just for years, not even just for decades, but for centuries. Some landays speak against the Taliban, others against America or Russia or the British Empire, while still others remember combatants and occupiers from long ago.

    Often a verse breaks through that reminds us of the deep personal cost of every armed conflict:

    “Send my salaams to the Mullah. Tell him to let my beloved put down his gun and come home.”

    When we realize that the verse above is a modern adaptation of a much older landay, we see another facet of this lamentation:

    "Send my salaams to the Mullah. Tell him to let my beloved put down his book and come home."

    As Griswold observes:

    “In this modernization, a Talib's book becomes his gun. It's a subtle indictment of the role that religious teachers play in today's conflict. … And rather than places of religious study, their schools are commonly seen as training camps for holy war.”

    I have read few collections of poetry that have taken me to so many different places emotionally and spiritually while holding me captive to one geographical location. And I have read few books that in so few words express so much of the human condition.

    We often speak of someone speaking from the heart. Seldom have I come across a collection of poems that has made me realize just how rare that experience is, and how close together in the human heart lie tragedy, joy, longing, hope, comedy and horror. This volume reminds us how good good poetry can be.

  • Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 02, 2015

    Christ is RisenAnne Lamott retells a classic Hasidic story that has stuck in my mind. It is about a rabbi who always told his people “that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts.” One of the rabbi’s people asked him, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?”  He answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your hearts, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.”1 Lamott’s comments remind me of Leonard Cohen’s wise observation that the light gets into our lives through the cracks in them.

    So what does this have to do with Easter?

    There is a version of Easter that, frankly, leaves me cold and untouched. It is Easter without Good Friday. It is an empty tomb celebrated, but without a crucified body mourned. It is celebration, but without broken hearts. And I have never found this version of Easter convincing. It is altogether too disembodied, too abstract, too ethereal, and, therefore, too ephemeral to get under my skin. It feels like a massive denial, as though the whole Christian church is averting its eyes from something we would rather not see.

    Easter without Good Friday is also remarkably unlike the first Easter in the Gospels in which a group of people knew Jesus’ shattered, broken and lifeless body had been laid in a grave, in which they experienced the utter loss of all their hopes in light of his death, and in which they cowered in fear. In the Gospels, when the news came fresh from Jesus’ grave that the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty, these first disciples were stunned, disbelieving, shocked and disoriented. They were slow to believe because they knew what they had witnessed, and it was the death of Jesus.

    When the disciples come face to face with the risen Jesus (John 20:19-31), they discover something somehow just as startling as a risen Jesus. They discover that the risen Jesus is wounded. The risen Jesus carries the scars of crucifixion. Easter does not erase, deny or gloss over all that broke Jesus and placed him in a tomb. Those scars never disappeared. In this proclamation, we should hear the Good News of the Gospel, the Good News of a full-bodied resurrection. This has tremendous implications for our hope as Christians.

    The future redemption for which we long, and to which Easter bears witness, is redemption as human beings, not redemption from our humanity. It is resurrection of the body, not liberation of the spirit from a fleshly prison house. It is salvation from alienation and division to a way of being that is inconceivable to us as we now are, yet that is revealed to us in the risen Christ who took our flesh (broken body and spilled blood) into the very being of God. Our humanity resides there now in the being of God through the risen Jesus Christ, who has prepared a place for us in the heart of God.

    We cannot get to this Good News without entering into the surprising and strange teaching of the resurrection of the flesh. And it is a strange teaching, indeed.

    I remember a conversation my daughter, Jessica, and I had when she was a very little girl. It was about heaven. Jessica and I were riding along in the car when she asked me the question, “Will we eat in heaven?”

    I told her that I am not really sure that we will eat food in heaven. Our nourishment will come (I suspect) in some other way. Maybe we will be nourished somehow directly by the God on whom we depend for our very being. I mentioned something about Jesus after his resurrection having a body, but a different sort of body, a spiritual body, a body that bore the scars of his suffering, that was able to be touched, and was able to consume food. But, I said, I’m not sure that food was necessary to his risen life in the way that food is necessary to our present existence.

    She listened patiently as I rambled on. When I was finished, she furrowed her brow a little, twisted her mouth to one side, and shook her head. Then she said, “So we probably aren’t going to eat food in heaven?”

    “Well, no. I don’t think so,” I said.

    She sighed and said, “Okay. But it’s going to take a couple of weeks to get used to.” I think she’s right. It is going to take at least a couple of weeks. Maybe a couple of millennia.

    The fact that Christians believe in the resurrection of the body (not simply in the immortality of the soul), though it creates some interesting conundrums like the one that puzzled Jessica, speaks to the deep mystery of our faith in the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. As Easter approaches, I want to encourage us to hear the Good News that makes very little sense at all if it is divorced from the flesh-and-blood reality in which we are living.

    An Easter in isolation from Holy Week and Good Friday has very little meaning for the Christian faith. Indeed, Easter in isolation from the Passion of Christ can represent such a distortion of the Christian message as to render it false.

    Lesslie Newbigin once observed that the resurrection of Christ is not the reversal of a failure, but the proclamation of a victory.2 The Christian teaching of the resurrection of the dead in Christ announces God’s redemptive goal for all humanity, a goal that decisively counters the ways and means of all the fallen worldly principalities and powers whose might rests on their ability to coerce through intimidation and to enforce their ways on pain of death. Christ reigned over all creation from the cross. When Christ was raised from the dead, God placed His stamp of approval on the life that Jesus lived which led to that cross. The scars which Jesus Christ’s risen body bore are signs of the victory he achieved, not lingering symbols of a defeat he suffered.

    There truly is no Easter without Good Friday, and not for any of us.

    So, this Easter, I hope we will “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the Gospel stories of the death and resurrection of Jesus so that these sacred texts are on our hearts. That way, when our hearts break, the holy words will fall inside. “That’s how the light gets in.”3

    1Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 73.
    2Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (London: SPCK, 1986), 127.
    3Leonard Cohen, “Anthem,” written by Shanna Crooks, Mike Strange and Leonard Cohen. Copyright: Shanna Crooks Songs/ATV Songs LLC, Stranger Music Inc.

  • Easter in the Dark

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 31, 2015

    Easter VigilSome things we only learn by practice. In the case I am thinking of, liturgical practice, and I was late getting to the party on this practice. It happened like this.

    As a pastor, I led congregations through Holy Week services for well over a decade. We observed Maundy Thursdays and engaged in moving Tenebrae services. We chained the doors of the sanctuary on many a Good Friday and prayed in silence on many a Holy Saturday, when tombs were full and our hopes were empty. All of these practices prepared us for Easter Sunday morning and the full-throated celebration, "Alleluia! Christ is Risen!"

    It wasn't until I began to teach in a seminary, however, that I learned the age-old Christian practice of the Easter Vigil - a service of worship, which reminds us that Easter actually begins as the sun goes down on Holy Saturday. As the darkness falls, it is then that Christians have long made their way solemnly to some sleepy sanctuary to remember the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    I must credit my old friend, the late and utterly irreplaceable Professor Stan Hall for introducing me to this venerable Christian practice. Although it was Stan's predecessor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Professor Fred Holper, who introduced the Easter Vigil to that seminary.

    While I had attended the Easter Vigil a few times and always found it liturgically rich and moving, it was not until I preached at this service that its full impact struck me. Standing in the pulpit that evening, looking out at the congregation huddled in the resolute shadows that crept from every sacred corner of that chapel, the Gothic windows like gaping black holes lining the walls, our hymns of praise raised on high, I realized that celebrating Easter in the dark is not ironic, it is true. What might sound merely cheerful, merely happy on Easter morning amid sunshine and spring flowers, resounded in the darkness as joy. Joy. Not mere happiness. This is the Christian promise. And in no other instance have I felt the truth of the claim of Easter so powerfully than with darkness at every door of that sanctuary, the chill of winter not entirely vanquished, with only the hidden promise of spring in the night air.

    The truth of Easter makes its claim most powerfully with darkness at the door. The vigil reminds us that it was amid just such gloom that Christ was raised from the grave. And it is into our gloom that he steps risen.

    But perhaps there is another place where Easter speaks with just this power: at the graveside, or even on the way to the grave. Here we feel the echoes of the feet of death on the gravel path behind us, like a stalker stumbling in the dark. And it is here that we sense we are not alone on this path because we walk shoulder to shoulder with one who has taken our flesh through the gates of death and risen from the cold dark earth.

    My old friend, Stan, died slowly. It took years. He had a painful, debilitating illness that slowly stole life from him. For years before his death, Stan kept a wooden coffin in his office. The old-fashioned coffin had been made for him by Benedictine monks. And it stood erect in his office until that day when Ted Wardlaw and I unlocked Stan's office door and brought in the undertaker to take it away. Only a half hour or so before, Ted and I had helped the undertaker and the undertaker's assistant lift our friend's body into a hearse at Stan's home where he had died earlier that morning. It was a dark day, a day for grieving, and we kept that day holy like a vigil.

    I've not preached or led an Easter Vigil since the death of the friend who introduced me to this Christian practice. But as dusk approaches on Holy Saturday, I find myself now remembering that Christ was risen, though it was still dark. And however darkness may gather, Christ is risen indeed.

  • You Don't Have to be Mean or Stupid to Follow Jesus

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 23, 2015

    You Don't Have to be Mean or Stupid to Fololow JesusRecently the Reverend Charlene Han Powell, associate pastor for education and engagement at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, introduced me to an adult Christian education class that I was teaching at FAPC by repeating something I have said on several occasions: "You don't have to be mean or stupid to follow Jesus." Hearing someone repeat your words back to you is a lot like looking in a mirror. And I am grateful to Charlene for making me reflect anew on what really has become a personal conviction.

    These days, religious fervor seems to drive our country, and maybe our whole world, toward divisions fueled by anger, fear, ignorance and hatred. Not too long ago, while channel surfing, I was struck by the sheer volume of human noise - the rancor, incivility, abuse and vitriolic fury (real and pretended!) spouting from people who were sometimes literally shouting past one another. Packaged as "commentary," what was on display was a kind of vile consumer product, the appetite for which is ginned-up by distrust and fear of others. (Just to be clear about this: The programs I saw represented both "liberal" and "conservative" political ideologies and paid pundits for both major parties.)

    Sadly, faith does not seem to serve as much of an antidote to this sort of product. If anything, faith just becomes part of the mix.

    One religious leader implies that you can't be a "real Christian" unless you agree with him and his ilk. While another speaks contemptuously of those who are not "faithful" enough to join her group and share her views. Some decry the violence, hatred and radical exclusivism of another faith while (unconsciously?) fanning just such exclusivist flames among those who share their kind of Christianity. I recall a wonderful sermon I heard Fred Craddock preach years ago in which he claimed that the "dirtiest word" in the English language is "exclusive." Well, it is certainly one of the dirtiest.

    It all brings to mind that shortest verse in the Bible which we all learned as children, "Jesus wept." Although Jesus is seen in this passage (John 11:35) weeping with the sisters of Lazarus after his friend died (and before he raises Lazarus from the grave), I have often wondered what else Jesus might have wept over.

    There's a great line in an old Woody Alan movie, Hannah and Her Sisters. The character, a curmudgeonly artist, is commenting on watching some religious program on television. He speculates that if Jesus came back to Earth now and saw this kind of thing, he couldn't stop "throwing up." Maybe he's right, but I suspect that Jesus might just weep. Lamentations are in order.

    There are those who choose to define their faith according to whom they hate and whom they fear. I cannot bring myself to believe that this is the way of Jesus Christ, although it does seem to have been the way of some of the people who bitterly opposed Jesus for the most righteous of reasons.

    The generosity of spirit, the moral courage and devotion to mercy that characterize Jesus' great Sermon on the Mount (which I believe is the essential text for understanding the way of Jesus) embraces a spirit as expansive as the whole universe. Jesus refuses to define the neighborhood of God according to tribal, cultural or racial distinctions, or self-interest, enlightened or otherwise. We've all seen the bumper sticker, "Hatred is Not a Family Value." Neither is hatred a Christian one, not if Jesus is our guide.

    We simply must find ways to disarm those who hate without resorting to hatred and violence ourselves. We must also find ways to dismantle the hatred that hides deep in our own hearts.

    I believe that love, not merely as an affection but as a positive power for the sake of grace, is the key. Love, as exemplified by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi before him.* Such love rakes the hatred from our own hearts. As I said in a recent blog post, such love is a refiner's fire purging the hateful dross from us.

    Following Jesus just doesn't sit well with meanness and smallness of spirit. Neither does it require us to crouch in fear, afraid of thinking, suspicious of knowledge, resistant to new ideas and the best research in every field - scientific, historical, cultural and religious.

    Yet there are those who "brand" their Christianity by saying faith and knowledge can't go together. There are even religious folks - and quite a few irreligious ones as well - who staunchly maintain that Christians must be suspicious of education and that Christians cannot pursue the humanities and the sciences. All the while John Calvin reminds us that all true wisdom and knowledge comes from God. And Calvin, whom some of the most rigidly anti-scientific religious folk claim as their patron saint, was both a Christian and a Humanist. (His first book, we should remember, was on the pagan Stoic philosopher, Seneca.)

    We don't have to be anxious that the larger our understanding grows, the smaller God will become. God is not a delicate fabric we must keep out of the hot water of human inquiry. God is strong enough and durable enough never to be threatened by the increase of our knowledge and the expansiveness of our curiosity. God is big enough to encourage us to know as much as we possibly can. The expansion of human wisdom leads to deeper awe of God not to lessened faith.

    No, we do not have to be mean or stupid, cruel or ignorant to follow Jesus of Nazareth. I still stand by these words. If we want to show a family resemblance to our creator and heavenly parent, Jesus shows us a more excellent way.

    After all, when Jesus sent his twelve disciples out (Matthew 10:16), as he said, "like sheep among wolves," he encouraged them to be "as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves," not to be bird-brained snakes in the grass!

    *See Dr. King's interview with Kenneth B. Clark, for example, in which he says, "I think of love as something strong and that organizes itself into powerful direct action." James M. Washington, editor, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper, 1986) 335.

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